Cramped: The urban (lack of) space race

As New York unveils plans for ultra-compact apartments, Simon Usborne gets the skinny on the rise of a new breed of small homes

If an Englishman's home is his castle, then a New Yorker's apartment will soon be his rabbit hutch. Housing in a city already renowned for cheek-by-jowl living may become smaller still after Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a pilot project this week not for flats but “micro units”. The apartments, proposed for a block in the Kips Bay area of Manhattan, will offer as little as 275sq ft (26sq metres). You could fit 10 such flats on a tennis court, each of which would be the size of two small caravans – or five prison cells.

Responding to a challenge faced in metropolises all over the world, Bloomberg said the units were "critical to the city's continued growth, future competitiveness and long-term economic success" and would justify scrapping US standards requiring flats to offer 400sq ft of floor space.

The problem for planners is stark: the rise of solo living and smaller families has placed huge demand for small, affordable flats in cities that are running out of space. In London, one-bed flats have already shrunk by 13 per cent since 2000, to as low as 300sq ft, way short of the Parker Morris standards, set in 1961, which recommends a minimum of 470 sq ft for flats in the UK.

Ceilings are dropping and walls closing in suburban housing estates, too, where developers save big money for every square inch saved, while they flog the detached-house dream.

If flats without space to swing a Hoover, much less a cat, sound like a claustrophobic nightmare, for some, micro living has become an aspiration. Luke Clark Tyler's Manhattan apartment makes Bloomberg's units look palatial. The architect lives in a 78sq ft flat in a prime location, but it would be better described as a corridor. Yet he thrives there, telling local news last year: "If I had to choose spending time in a train or living in a small space, I'd choose a small space."

Living small can also mean thinking big. The "small house movement" has a growing following in the US for compact homes that defy the super-sized approach to building outside the cities. Small means efficient, and green. The University of Hertfordshire last year revealed a prototype Cube House, a 10x10ft wooden box concealing three floors, a full-sized shower and enough solar panels to cover all its energy needs.

George Clarke, a British architect and the presenter of an upcoming Channel 4 series about small homes, says the demands of the modern city present exciting challenges. "House builders in Britain still don't think creatively about design," he says. "When clients set the challenge of making space work, you have to use as many tricks as you can, which is great for young architects."

Clarke finds solutions in technology, like desks that become beds without sending your paperwork flying. The "transformer" approach has been taken to extremes by Gary Chang, an architect in Hong Kong, the home of micro living. He converted his 344sq ft flat into a mansion of innovation. Walls slide and beds disappear to offer 20 rooms in one. For a tour of the tiny future, go to:

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